(CNSNews.com) - Despite recent setbacks in statewide elections -- including the loss of what proved to be a nationally decisive Senate seat -- Virginia remains "a Republican leaning state" in the view of Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
"Politics is all about cycles, and each party has its day in the sun," he told Cybercast News Service.
Sabato believes the Virginia governor's race in 2009 will be the next key barometer.
Looking ahead to that race, he said the key question on the Republican side is whether a "deep bench" of viable candidates will step back and allow defeated Republican Sen. George Allen to mount a political comeback -- or enter the fray themselves.
While it is too soon to say for certain how much longer the Democrats will remain ascendant, Sabato sees some of the major factors currently weighing down the Republican Party, such as low poll numbers for President Bush and the protracted conflict in Iraq, as being off the table in 2009.
One statewide official who could step forward is Attorney General Bob McDonnell, who already has a record of legislative achievement even after just a few months in office, Sabato said.
Moreover, McDonnell also cut a large figure for himself when he previously served in the House of Delegates as a senior legislator, he added.
"McDonnell is nicely positioned," Sabato said, noting there was a precedent of attorney generals and lieutenant governors winning Virginia gubernatorial races.
In the aftermath of the Republican losses in 2006, McDonnell made it a point to highlight his roots in Northern Virginia, a smart move in Sabato's opinion, since this is where the party has been losing ground.
Nevertheless, other strong Republican contenders could step forward, including Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, former Gov. Jim Gilmore or even a current member of Congress.
The danger for the GOP, Sabato said, was the possibility of a complicated and potentially "nasty" primary fight that could work to the advantage of Democrats.
A multi-candidate Republican field in 2009 could also "aggravate and extend" the fractures already characterizing the party, Sabato argued.
While he did not write off the possibility of Allen running again and potentially uniting the party, Sabato said he did see obstacles.
"When you're an incumbent and you lose your office, it's not easy to come back," he said. "Right now, people are talking about it. But will they still be talking about it next year? It's not as though the Republican Party has an empty bench."
On the Democratic side, Sabato said an "800-pound gorilla" in the form of former Gov. Mark Warner could "clear the field in both parties."
McDonnell has not indicated whether he has an eye on the 2009 governor's race, and when asked in an interview about his future agenda, remained focused on legislative plans.
On Virginia's political future, however, McDonnell was expansive. He disputed the view that Virginia was shifting from a solid Republican red state to a "purple state" more evenly divided between the two parties.
For more than 130 years, the Democratic Party had solid control over the state, locking the Republicans out of the governorship and the general assembly, McDonnell noted.
But the last three decades had witnessed a clear movement in favor of the GOP, fueled by the state's conservative values.
Although his party suffered setbacks in the state last month, McDonnell predicted that Republicans would recover, both in Virginia and throughout the nation, as long as candidates run on specific proposals rooted in the principles of limited government and free markets.
"The Democrats have won statewide when they run as moderates and as right-of-center candidates," he said.
McDonnell cited passage of marriage amendments in Virginia and elsewhere in the country as evidence of the appeal traditional values continue to have with the majority of voters, even when they decide against Republican candidates.
See Earlier Story:
Virginia Attorney General Has Sights on Predators, Land Seizure Powers (Dec. 6, 2006)
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